Sadly, processed foods do not love us back.

By Tim Nelson
May 20, 2021
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Processed foods: we love them, but they may not love us back. Sure, the occasional guilty pleasure junk food isn't going to kill us. But as the self-experimentation of one doctor suggests, there may just be a price to pay for those going whole hog on processed foods. 

Taking a page out of Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me playbook, Dr. Chris van Tulleken pushed his body to extremes in order to experience the harmful effects of a junk food diet firsthand. For 28 days, 80 percent of his diet consisted of "ultra processed foods," which, according to the Mirror, lines up with the diet that one out of five UK adults eats on a regular basis. 

The results, which were captured for BBC documentary What Are We Feeding our Kids? and will form the basis of a clinical study, weren't pretty. In addition to gaining one stone (14 lbs on this side of the pond) of weight, van Tulleken observed that the diet took a significant invisible toll on him as well. 

"I aged about 10 years in four weeks. I just developed piles (hemorrhoids), no libido, erectile dysfunction, expanding waistline, extreme anxiety, unhappiness, sleeplessness, heartburn," he  said, running down a list of the diet's effects. "I felt better almost immediately after I stopped the diet."

For Dr. van Tulleken, the goal wasn't to push his body to extremes just for the sake of it, but to draw attention to what a similarly processed diet might do to the kids who make up the audience of his BBC children's health show Operation Ouch

"If this is what it's doing to my 42-year-old brain, what is it doing to the brains of children who are eating 60, 70, 80 percent of this for their entire lives from birth to adulthood and beyond?" he asked. "We know more about the moon than we do about what [ultra processed food] does to children's brains." 

With childhood obesity rising significantly in recent decades, van Tulleken wanted to make a point that "anything in a plastic pack with an ingredient that you are very unlikely to have in your kitchen" should be approached with caution. According to the Mirror, he says these additives can give processed foods "hyper-palatability" that makes the brand crave them to the point of overeating.  

The good news, though, is that the worst of the symptoms Dr. van Tulleken experienced subsided almost immediately after ending the diet. Getting the rest of society to change its habits might prove a taller order.